Built to Last

Pondering the dark side of architectural landmarks.

When I began the Tucson Architectural Landmarks program in 1997, I was in the midst of co-authoring, with Annie Nequette, a long-overdue publication, A Guide to Tucson Architecture (due for publication March 2002 from the University of Arizona Press). Like the book, the Landmarks program is intended to raise awareness of Tucson's rich architectural heritage and to look at our "built" environment with a more informed eye.

Sponsored by the Arizona Architectural Archives at the University of Arizona's College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, Tucson Architectural Landmarks is held each year in conjunction with Architecture Week to encourage the public to participate by voting alongside architectural professionals for a "hall of fame" of Tucson buildings. This year's Architecture Week, September 29-October 7, is full of activities outlined in the events section of this issue of the Weekly.

Since its inception, the Tucson Architectural Landmarks program has designated over a dozen buildings representing both historic and contemporary periods. These landmarks define what we see as significant architecture based on two key criteria: exceptional design quality, and association with certain values represented by a period of time, culture or people. Some Tucson architectural landmarks, such as Mission San Xavier, have both going for it; but that's no surprise as it is also a designated landmark on UNESCO's World Heritage List. However, most buildings, including this year's two newly designated landmarks, have their significance attached to this more intangible quality of association.

The new contemporary landmark is the Tucson Creative Dance Center/Mettler Studios, located at the corner of Fort Lowell Road and Cherry Avenue. Though the 1963 building was designed by John Howe, its design has Frank Lloyd Wright written all over it. Howe, an apprentice to Wright, employed many of Wright's signature design qualities, including low profile; flowing building forms that seem to grow organically out of the ground; low-pitched, copper-clad roof panels that oxide to a distinctive green patina; and even the signage mimics the master's typographic style.

Unlike our sister city to the north, Tucson was never graced with a building by Frank Lloyd Wright, though many people attribute this building to him. Though the significance assigned to this building is as much about its association with Wright as its independent design quality, the spaces and overall design do deserve merit.

In contrast, the newly designated historic landmark, the 1931 San Pedro Chapel, is a humble building whose design emulates the vernacular tradition of small community chapels through the Southwest. More significant than the building's simple architectural quality is the role this chapel originally played as the spiritual center of the historic village of El Fuerte, and currently plays as a community center for the revitalized Fort Lowell historic district. For the residents of this area, the San Pedro Chapel embodies the traditional sense of place reminiscent of rural agrarian communities that Tucson has lost through the encroaching urban sprawl.

THERE IS, HOWEVER, A DARK side to the use of architecture to represent such intangible values in our culture. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were intentional attacks on the values we associate with these buildings: economic and military superiority. Unfortunately, these are not the only landmarks that have been targeted by terrorists.

In March, the 1,500-year old Buddha statues of Bamiyan Afghanistan, representing that region's pre-Islamic cultural heritage and also on the World Heritage List, were destroyed by the Taliban regime. As justification for the destruction of the 175-foot-tall statues, the Taliban declared that these monuments had been the "gods of the infidels." Closer to home, the Mortuary Chapel at San Xavier was victim to vandalism just last year, breaking and defacing statuary and causing damage to the tangible and intangible qualities of that place.

Association is a fundamental criterion in the designation and preservation of our cultural heritage. Designation of local, national and international landmarks is intended to protect the tangible monuments that represent the more intangible cultural values that continue to provide a sense of identity to people linked to them. In a tragic irony, the very designation of these monuments for their associated cultural values has made them targets of 21st-century terrorism. As aptly phrased in a recent Getty Center publication, the mechanism that was meant to act as a shield has now made them a target.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 took thousands of lives and will take countless more before the attacks on our values as a nation will cease. What these attacks have reinforced for me is an even stronger dedication to preserving our cultural heritage, the tangible buildings and other products of our common past, as enduring remnants of the intangible values of the people, communities and cultures that created them.